Chapter 14. Understanding Partition

• joy of our country’s independence from colonial rule in 1947 was tarnished by violence and brutality of Partition.
• Partition of British India into sovereign states of India and Pakistan led to many sudden developments.
• Thousands of lives were snuffed out, many others changed dramatically, cities changed, India changed, a new country was born, and there was unprecedented genocidal violence and migration.
• This chapter will examine history of Partition. It will discuss how history of these experiences can be reconstructed by talking to people and interviewing them, that is, through use of oral history.
• At same time, it will point out strengths and limitations of oral history.

A Momentous Marker Partition or holocaust?
• Almost 15 million people had to cross borders They were rendered homeless, having suddenly lost all their immovable property and most of their movable assets, separated from many of their relatives and friends as well.
• Thus, stripped of their local or regional cultures, they were forced to begin picking up their life from scratch.
• Holocaust in Germany is remembered and referred to in our contemporary concerns so much. Yet, differences between two events should not be overlooked.
• In 1947-48, subcontinent did not witness any state-driven extermination as was case with Nazi Germany.
• The ‘ethnic cleansing’ that characterized partition of India was carried out by self-styled representatives of religious communities rather than by state agencies.

Power of Stereotypes
• stereotypes of extraterritorial and Pan Islamic loyalty comes fused with other objectionable ideas about both communities, Hindus as well as Muslims.
• Some of these stereotypes pre-date Partition, but they were immensely strengthened because of 1947.
• relationship between Pakistan and India has been profoundly shaped by this legacy of Partition.

Why and How Did Partition Happen? Culminating point of a long history?
• Partition as a culmination of a communal politics that started developing in opening decades of twentieth century. They suggest that separate electorates for Muslims, created by colonial government in 1909 and expanded in 1919, crucially shaped nature of communal politics.
• Separate electorates meant that Muslims could now elect their own representatives in designated constituencies.
• This created a temptation for politicians working within this system to use sectarian slogans and gather a following by distributing favours to their own religious groups.
• Religious identities thus acquired a functional use within a modern political system; and logic of electoral politics deepened and hardened these identities.
• Communal identities were consolidated by a host of other developments in early twentieth century.
• During 1920s and early 1930s tension grew around a number of issues.
• Muslims were angered by ‘music-before-mosque’, by cow protection movement, and by efforts of Arya Samaj to bring back to Hindu fold [shuddhi] those who had recently converted to Islam.
• Hindus were angered by rapid spread of tabligh [propaganda] and tanzim [organisation] after 1923. Every communal riot deepened difference between communities, creating disturbing memories of violence.

Provincial Elections of 1937 and Congress Ministries
• In 1937, elections to provincial legislatures were held for first time. Only about 10 to 12 % of population enjoyed right to vote.
• Congress did well in elections, winning an absolute majority in five out of eleven provinces and forming governments in seven of them. It did badly in constituencies reserved for Muslims.
• In United Provinces, Muslim League wanted to form a joint government with Congress.
• Congress had won an absolute majority in province, so it rejected offer. Some scholars argue that this rejection convinced League that if India remained united, then Muslims would find it difficult to gain political power because they would remain a minority.
• Maulana Azad, an important Congress leader, pointed out in 1937 that members of Congress were not allowed to join League, yet Congressmen were active in Hindu Mahasabha– at least in Central Provinces.

The ‘Pakistan’ Resolution
• Pakistan demand was formalised gradually. On 23rd March 1940, League moved a resolution demanding a measure of autonomy for Muslim majority areas of subcontinent. This ambiguous resolution never mentioned partition or Pakistan.
• origins of Pakistan demand have been traced back to Urdu poet Mohammad Iqbal, writer of ‘Sare Jahan Se Achha Hindustan Hamara’.

Suddenness of Partition
• pressure of Second World War on British delayed negotiations for independence for some time. It was massive Quit India Movement which started in 1942, and persisted despite intense repression, that brought British Raj to its knees and compelled its officials to open a dialogue with Indian parties regarding a possible transfer of power.

Post-War Developments
• When negotiations were begun again in l945, British agreed to create an entirely Indian central Executive Council, except for Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief of armed forces, as a preliminary step towards full independence.
• Discussions about transfer of power broke down due to Jinnah’s unrelenting demand that League had an absolute right to choose all Muslim members of Executive Council and that there should be a kind of communal veto in Council, with decisions opposed by Muslims needing a twothirds majority.
• Provincial elections were again held in 1946. Congress swept general constituencies, capturing 91.3 % of non-Muslim vote.

Towards Partition
• After withdrawing its support to Cabinet Mission plan, Muslim League decided on ‘Direct Action’ for winning its Pakistan demand. It announced 16th August 1946 as ‘Direct Action Day’. On this day, riots broke out in Calcutta, lasting several days and leaving several thousand people dead.
• By March 1947 violence spread to many parts of northern India. It was in March 1947 that Congress high command voted for dividing Punjab into two halves, one with Muslim majority and other with Hindu/Sikh majority, similar principle to Bengal.

A Possible Alternative to Partition
• In March 1946 British Cabinet sent a three member mission to Delhi to examine League’s demand and to suggest a suitable political framework for a free India.
• Cabinet Mission toured country for three months and recommended a loose three-tier confederation.
• India was to remain united. It was to have a weak central government controlling only foreign affairs, defence & communications with existing provincial assemblies being grouped into three sections while electing constituent assembly:
(1) Section A for Hindu-majority provinces, and
(2) Sections B and C for Muslim-majority provinces of north-west and north-east [including Assam] respectively.
• Initially all major parties accepted this plan. But agreement was short-lived because it was based on mutually opposed interpretations of plan.
• League wanted grouping to be compulsory, with Sections B and C developing into strong entities with right to secede from Union in future.
• Congress wanted that provinces be given right to join a group.
• Ultimately, therefore, neither League nor Congress agreed to Cabinet Mission’s proposal. Only Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of NWFP continued to firmly oppose idea of partition.

Withdrawal of Law and Order
• bloodbath continued for about a year from March 1947 onwards. One main reason for this was collapse of institutions of governance.
• Amritsar district became scene of bloodshed later in year when there was a complete breakdown of authority in city.
• British officials asked them to contact Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabh Bhai Patel or M.A. Jinnah. Nobody knew who could exercise authority and power.
• top leadership of Indian parties, barring Mahatma Gandhi, were involved in negotiations regarding independence while many Indian civil servants in affected provinces feared for their own lives and property.

One-man Army
• The 77-year-old Gandhiji decided to stake his all in a bid to vindicate his lifelong principle of non-violence, and his conviction that people’s hearts could be changed. He moved from villages of Noakhali in East Bengal [present-day Bangladesh] to villages of Bihar and then to riot-torn slums of Calcutta and Delhi, in a heroic effort to stop Hindus and Muslims kill each other, careful everywhere to reassure minority community.

Gendering Partition- ‘Recovering’ Women
• Women were raped, abducted, sold, often many times over, forced to settle down to a new life with strangers in unknown circumstances.
• Believing women to be on wrong side of border, they now tore them away from their new relatives, and sent them back to their earlier families or locations. They did not consult concerned women, undermining their right to take decisions regarding their own lives.

Preserving ‘Honour’
• On 13th March every year, when their ‘martyrdom’ is celebrated, incident is recounted to an audience of men, women & children.
• Women are exhorted to remember sacrifice and bravery of their sisters and to cast themselves in same mould.

Regional Variations
• While carnages occurred in Calcutta and Noakhali in 1946, Partition was most bloody and destructive in Punjab.
• near-total displacement of Hindus and Sikhs eastwards into India from West Punjab and of almost all Punjabi-speaking Muslims to Pakistan happened in a relatively short period of two years between 1946 and 1948.
• Many Bengali Hindus remained in East Pakistan while many Bengali Muslims continued to live in West Bengal. Finally, Bengali Muslims [East Pakistanis] rejected Jinnah’s two-nation theory through political action, breaking away from Pakistan and creating Bangladesh in 1971-72.
• Religious unity could not hold East and West Pakistan together.

Help, Humanity, Harmony
• Buried under debris of violence and pain of Partition is an enormous history of help, humanity & harmony.
• However, with regard to events such as Partition in India and Holocaust in Germany, there is no dearth of testimony about different forms of distress that numerous people faced. So, there is ample evidence to figure out trends, to point out exceptions.
• Different types of sources have to be tapped for answering different types of questions. Government reports, for instance, will tell us of number of ‘recovered’ women exchanged by Indian and Pakistani states but it is women who will tell us about their suffering.


1905 – Partitioned on Bengal

1906 – Muslim League was formed

1916 – Lucknow Pact was signed 22nd Dec,

1939 – Deliverance day, observed by Muslim League 16th Aug,

1946 – Direct Action Day plan celebrated by Muslim League 3rd June,

1947 – Declaration and acceptance Mountbatten Plan 15th August,

1947 – India became free and emerged as an independent nation.

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